Always & Forever, the 1993 debut album by British R&B group Eternal, was an enormous commercial success. Selling over one million copies in the UK alone, the album also birthed six singles, all of which went Top 20. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – the triumph of Always & Forever, it (ironically) became a singular moment. It was the only album by Eternal as a four-piece group.
The backstory: “That learning process was very important”
There is no romantic formation story to Eternal. They began with a savvy business decision. At the start of the 90s a music management company, First Avenue Records, were looking to emulate En Vogue with a British group modelled on the Americans’ success. This meant four women with class, R&B chops and pop crossover potential. But Eternal’s artificial origins were quickly transcended by the quality of the four members recruited.
First up were Easther and Vernie Bennett, who were talent-spotted in a London nightclub. Powerful vocalists, the two sisters were steeped in gospel music, practiced in church choirs, yet had a fresh, modern feel – perfect for a new R&B group. “Me and Easther always knew we’d be in this business,” Vernie said in 1995. “That’s what we always wanted to do.”
Next came Louise Nurding, who then recruited her friend Kéllé Bryan. Louise and Kéllé were more showbiz, having become friends at the Italia Conti School Of Performing Arts. This new foursome were first called Hymn, and then the name was changed to the more secular Eternal.
The four women got used to one another’s personalities and singing styles for a whole year before releasing their debut single, Stay. This was an intense period of preparation. “Because we rehearsed so much in the studio we were able to find out exactly what we were all like,” Easther said in 1994. “We could decide whether we actually wanted to be in a group with each other or not! So that learning process was very important.”
The songs: “They appeal to all kinds of people”
Picked to open Always & Forever, Stay was a cover of a New Jack Swing track by singer Glenn Jones which had enjoyed some success in the US but was virtually unknown in the UK. It was a shortcut to an authentic sound that really worked for Eternal.
The team of songwriters on Always & Forever built on Stay’s momentum, reflecting an R&B sound with grit and substance. Dennis Charles, Ronnie Wilson and Nigel Lowis, who between them produced nine of the album’s 14 tracks, provided the bedrock of this vibe. Other talents contributed, too; Lottie Golden, an American singer and producer, whose work has spanned late-60s hippie culture and 80s hip-hop, also acted as a producer on three tracks, including the hit Oh Baby I… There was even a credit for Tim Simenon, of Bomb The Bass fame.
The most notable name, however, was BeBe Winans, a US gospel star who co-produced and wrote the Always & Forever track Crazy. The connection between Winans and Eternal would only deepen, as he guested on their No.1 single, I Wanna Be The Only One, in 1997.
Always & Forever’s credits also give a sense of Eternal’s confidence as a whole. So Good was written by the four group members only; and Easther and Vernie co-wrote two further tracks. Vernie also led the group in terms of how their voices sounded, as Kéllé said in 1994. “When it comes to vocals it’s definitely Vernie because she’s very musical, and did all the vocal arrangements on the album,” she said.
“There are some very strong songs on the album,” Louise Nurding noted, summing up the success of Always & Forever, “and they appeal to all kinds of people.”
The context: “Black actors and musicians don’t get the same opportunities as white people here in Britain”
Reflecting a growing awareness by the music press of how racism was impacting on young Black artists, Eternal were often asked about the topic during the promo run for Always & Forever, which was released on 28 November 1993. Smash Hits published a revealing interview: it covered Eternal promoting the album in South Africa, where Vernie expressed disappointment that “only 1 in 4” of the audience members were Black. She also said that she herself had been the victim of a recent racist attack. “In Europe people stick to their own kind – usually white – that’s obvious in the magazines,” Vernie also said in 1994. “It’s just that Black actors and musicians don’t get the same opportunities as white people here in Britain.”
Alongside these thoughtful discussions on race, the group often endured ignorant assumptions, disrespectful to all members, that Louise Nurding was only there to provide them with a commercial presence that Vernie, Easther and Kéllé would not have without her. “I don’t see her as a white girl, she’s Lu,” said Kéllé in 1996. “Race and colour was never an issue with Eternal.”
The split: “If something like that did happen, the others would just move along”
At the end of 1994, after their phenomenally successful year, Vernie and Kéllé were asked whether any of Eternal had solo plans. Kéllé immediately said no, but Vernie was more ambivalent. “This is a career, not only for me but for the other girls,” she said. “I think that if something like that did happen the others would just move along.”
It was Louise Nurding who was the one to leave, announcing her plans in July 1995. While she did embark on a solo career, releasing the album Naked in 1996, she later said that wasn’t the reason for her departure. Instead, she reflected how it was Always & Forever’s very success that she came to see as a cause of her unhappiness. “I was 20, sitting in hotel rooms on my own,” she said. “All I knew was that I couldn’t carry on being so unhappy and homesick. My passion for singing and music was dying. So I left.”
“We’re a threesome now, we’re not the same group,” a stoic Easther said, in an interview just after the split happened. “We’re bringing along the same music – but this is phase two.”
Louise’s departure meant that Always & Forever remains a unique moment in British R&B, a glorious expression of young woman power. “They see us as four girls who are in control,” Louise Nurding said in 1994, when asked about why Eternal fans loved the album. “A lot of people underestimate the intelligence of the young pop audience.”
Looking for more? Check out the best British soul songs.
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